Banned in its native Singapore, Ken Kwek’s second feature #LookAtMe takes the city-state’s repressive laws to their disturbing end point to deliver an emotionally charged, Orwellian nightmare of a story about siblings fighting for freedom when society is pressuring them to submit.
Identical twin brothers Sean and Ricky Marzuki (both seamlessly played by yao) are vying for internet stardom, posting Youtube videos of them pranking their long-suffering mother Nancy (Pam Oei). Outgoing Sean is straight, while his more reserved brother Ricky is gay. One day, when Sean’s girlfriend invites them to the pentecostal megachurch she attends with her family where the boys are horrified to hear the church’s rockstar leader, pastor Josiah Long (a sickening good performance from Adrian Pang) go on a homophobic rant to his adoring congregation.
Soon after, Sean posts a video to highlight the homophobia he encountered there, editing the pastor’s sermon into a crass comedic parody. Neither he nor Ricky anticipate the vicious retaliation from the church, the state, and the general public that ensues.
#LookAtMe starts off light, with an air of optimism, feeding into our existing expectations of cinema. Charismatic young men facing a corrupt system; we know how this plot tends to play out on film. Kwek continually uses our expectations about narrative structure against us, shocking us with every turn. What seems to start as an ‘underdog vs the system’ story takes a bleakly existential turn. What follows is a harsh, nightmarish tale. You could call it Kafka-esque if it weren’t so tragically realistic.
The state of LGBTQ+ rights in Singapore has been a delicate dance for years. Until November 2022, Section 377A was still in place, a regressive colonial era law making sex between men illegal. #LookAtMe doesn’t deal with Section 377A directly, but its shadow looms large.
Kwek instead focuses on the hypocrisies underlying Singapore’s institutions. Despite the Marzuki family’s apologies, pastor Long heartlessly sues them into poverty; all from the luxury of his yacht. Sean is thrown in jail on a variety of bizarre charges including “spreading fake news”, while Ricky is attacked on the street—under the eye of Singapore’s expansive state surveillance—without the attackers ever being found.
#LookAtMe is fueled by a sense of injustice and outrage, but Kwek continually demonstrates that when up against an all-powerful system, that rage is often impotent. Inspired by the real-life prosecutions of bloggers critical of the state, Kwek shows that beneath Singapore’s clean and happy veneer, the climate of fear pervades everyone’s lives. What elevates the compelling narrative is the filmmaking. Kwek blends genres and peppers moments of comedy within the horror, creating a cinematic boldness that enlivens the existential numbness.
yao is outstanding in his dual roles. Had I not known that one performer played both brothers, I’d have assumed Kwek had discovered real-life twins. Each is easily identified by their differences in personality and movement. The real heart of the story is their mother, and although Pam Oei has limited screen time, it is through her performance that we feel the true impact of events.
Kwek has delivers a chameleonic, challenging film, birthed in defiance of repression. #LookAtMe is a thrilling work; a bold assault on your senses and emotions that keeps you gripped to its final frame.
By Chad Armstrong
#LookAtMe receives its Sydney Premiere at Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival running in cinemas in Sydney and on demand Australia-wide from February 15th to March 2nd, 2023. Click here for tickets and more information.